Santa Barbra Proves You Can Have a Safe In Person Festival During COVID
Welcome to the reboot of my blog, “The Outsiders Guide to the Inside of Hollywood”. For those of you joining me for the first time, my blog is different from others. I’ve been photographing celebrity red carpet events for over a decade and have been a lifelong film lover. I’m also an aspiring screenwriter and producer. As I’m sure everyone can relate to, I’ve been in complete hell thanks to COVID. My agency, PR Photos, closed up shop and disappeared without paying me the money they owed. I finally made my way back to covering films festivals with in person talent attending last fall at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
One of my favorite film festivals is located in Santa Barbara. I’ve been covering the Santa Barbara International Film Festival for over 10 years. The festival is famous for their tributes held at the historic Arlington Theater. Like most of the film festivals held Post COVID, last year the festival was virtual. When I first heard that SBIFF was going to be in person (with virtual events streamed) I was overjoyed. SBIFF is the final festival on the road to the Oscars. This year’s tributes were stacked with 2022 Oscar nominees. The list of talent appearing live was Javier Bardem, Nicole Kidman, Kristen Stewart, Will Smith, Benedict Cumberbatch, Caitriona Aunjanue Ellis, Penélope Cruz and more.
This year’s festival featured another obstacle with the rise of the Omicron-led Virus which led to the cancellation of the Sundance (they did a virtual version in 2021) and Palm Springs film festivals. The 2022 festival featured 48 world premieres and 95 U.S. premieres from 54 countries. The festival kicked off with director Craig Roberts, “The Phantom of the Open” starring Sally Hawkins and Mark Rylance.
Outstanding Directors of the Year Award
My first day covering the festival was The Hollywood Reporter’s event Outstanding Directors of the Year Award honoring Paul Thomas Anderson (LICORICE PIZZA), Kenneth Branagh (BELFAST), Jane Campion (THE POWER OF THE DOG), Ryusuke Hamaguchi (DRIVE MY CAR), and Steven Spielberg (WEST SIDE STORY).
Once I arrived in Santa Barbara, my first stop was not the hotel or the venue. I had to race to pick up my media badge and show my proof of vaccination. The festival required masks to be worn both inside and outside at the festival. They had a great system, giving out red wristbands (that had to stay on at all times) to people after showing their card. This process saved a lot of time, and prevented me from having to dig out proof of vaccination at every event.
The first Oscar Nominee who hit the red carpet was not a director but the Best Supporting Actor nominee, Kodi Smit-McPhee, from “The Power of the Dog”. Shortly after that “Belfast” director Sir Kenneth Charles Branagh arrived and signed autographs for the fans surrounding the Arlington Theatre. After speaking with the house video team he headed down the carpet and posed for photos with his wife, Lindsay Brunnock. After that he posed for solo photos. Just a few minutes later, Paul Thomas Anderson arrived representing his feel good coming of age film “Licorice Pizza”. At this point, there was a lot of confusion going on with a large number of people on the carpet. Unfortunately, Paul walked right by my spot and I could only get a few shots off.
Kenneth, who was answering a videographer’s question, stopped and watched Anderson’s interview then walked up to him. Both directors were in great spirits and posed for pictures together. It turned out that both directors were fans of each other and this was the first time they ever met.That left us with 3 directors to go. As we waited, nothing seemed to be happening. I was almost sure Steven Spielberg and Jane Campion wouldn’t walk the carpet. The carpet finished up and I went inside to watch the tribute.
The evening kicked off with the Director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival executive, Roger Durling hitting the stage. Durling said, “It’s amazing to be back, amazing to be back in person, it’s surreal.” I’m in heaven. Durling spoke how COVID, changed the way he looked at things in life. “The glass was always half empty in life now, the glass is half full.” He then announced that a few of the directors couldn’t be here because of testing positive for COVID. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Steven Spielberg, and Jane Campion were interviewed in a taped virtual call. The night was far from over. Both directors were interviewed separately.
American Riviera Award Honoring Kristen Stewart
The third day of the festival was one of the most anticipated. The festival was honoring Kristen for her work playing Princess Diana in “Spencer.” The Oscar nominee arrived at the Arlington and to no surprise her first stop was to sign autographs for fans, who had been waiting. After the house interviewed her she made her way down to the press line to pose for photos. Kristen, who looked amazing, wore Chanel; a full-length black chiffon dress with a sheer midriff, complete with peek-a-boo white tutu. I have photographed Kristen in the past, but this was the most camera friendly I ever saw her. Kristen seemed overjoyed. Unfortunately, due to time she was only able to interview with the A list outlets. After the interviews, Kristen headed inside the Arlington for her tribute and award presentation. The tribute covered scenes and interviews that spanned Kristen’s entire career starting with her acting debut at the age of 12 in “Panic Room” with Jodie Foster to her most recent work in “Spencer”. The interview was led by IndieWire’s Anne Thompson. Anne went through Kristen’s career of course talking about the film series that made her an A list talent, the Twilight Saga. At this point, I was feeling a little bad for her. Kristen could have easily been typecast or gone on to do more teen films. It had to be hard when talking about the Vampire films. Kristen has come a long way, choosing independent films over potential box office blockbusters. She’s taken challenges of playing everyone from Joan Jett in “The Runaways” to Princess Diana in “Spencer”. The one thing Kristen hasn’t done is direct a film. That could be changing soon as she told Anne that she is trying to develop a feature “I’m trying to put a movie together right now… I have a couple balls in the air,” she said. “I’ll tease you with that, but I’m very excited.” After the tribute a surprise guest, Charlize Theron presented her with her award. The actors who are friends co-starred in “Snow White And The Huntsman”, hugged as Kristen made an acceptance speech thanking friends and family and directors she had worked with.
The next event was one of my favorite nights of the festival, the Virtuosos Award. This award was sponsored by UGG at the 37th Santa Barbara Film Festival at the Arlington Theatre. This award is given to multiple “up and coming” actors for achieving breakthrough performances. This year the festival honored Caitriona Balfe (Belfast), Ariana DeBose (West Side Story), Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza), Emilia Jones (CODA), Troy Kotsur (CODA), Simon Rex (Red Rocket), Saniyya Sidney (King Richard) and Ciarán Hinds (Belfast). The actors were interviewed on stage separately by Dave Karger, Turner Classic Movie Host, who moderated the conversation. The star of the night was Troy Kotsur (CODA). The deaf actor proved that not only is he a great dramatic actor but he was really funny. I’ve got a feeling he will be taking home the Oscar this weekend.
Outstanding Performers Award Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis
Sunday night was one of my most anticipated evenings. The 2022 Outstanding Performers Award with Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis for their work in “King Richard”. They portrayed the parents of Venus Williams and Serena Williams in Reinaldo Marcus Green‘s “King Richard”.
Aunjanue Ellis arrived first. Shortly after Will Smith arrived and started signing autographs for the fans. After that, he headed down the carpet, posed for photos and did interviews before heading inside for the tributes.
The evenings started off with The Hollywood Reporter moderator, Scott Feinberg, showing clips and speaking with the actors while walking through their past films. Scott is one of the best moderators, however nobody could have predicted what was next. Shortly before the tribute started I was in my seat and these two drunk girls tried to sit in the media area. Luckily the volunteer made sure they left the press and talent area seats. Fast forward to about 15 minutes into the interview when I heard people talking and acting like they were at a bar. The scuffling got louder and louder. I wanted to get out of my seat and tell them to shut up! The scuffling only got louder. So loud that the actors heard it on stage. Will tried to see through the lights to see if the woman was alright. A young woman (very drunk) was repeatedly talking throughout the interview about a man sitting in front of her who had asked for her to be quiet and when she didn’t he took a cup of water and threw it on her. Security was in the process of kicking them both out when Smith stopped to ask what happened. He then joked to Ellis, “That’s why it’s really important to have white audiences, cause that would have gone very differently at either place where we grew up. So I wanna commend the white people for how y’all handled that. You wanna act out the scene, how it would’ve been if someone poured a drink on you?”
Ellis took off her earrings and heels as if she were getting ready for a fight. The audience laughed and Smith joked with Feinberg who tried to resume, “You’re not gonna make it back from that, Scott! You can try.” Luckily Scott made it back and led a very interesting tribute.
The Montecito Award – Penélope Cruz
Next Up was The Montecito Award presentation given to Penélope Cruz, who was being honored for her role in Pedro Almodóvar’s, “Parallel Mothers,” which earned her an Academy Award nomination in the Best Actress category. Penélope looked stunning wearing a burgundy gown with a low back. After finishing up with the press line, she then entered the theater for her tribute. The tribute showed mainly clips from the 7 Pedro Almodóvar films she starred in. The actress talked about how she delves so deep into her characters when acting she can sometimes take on the emotions or the stress of those she is portraying. Penélope had a theater filled with fans, but her biggest fan was her husband, Javier Bardem, dressed in a suit who sat in the front row to support his wife. Penélope received the award from Sophia Loren’s son, director/producer Edoardo Ponti, which was followed by a recorded message to Penélope by Sophia Loren. In her speech Cruz, brought up that it was International Women’ Day, and said she shares her award with all of the wonderful mothers who are facing unbearable challenges and horrors in Ukraine.
Cinema Vanguard Award – Benedict Cumberbatch
The festival’s 2022 Cinema Vanguard Award winner was Benedict Cumberbatch. The actor is nominated for an academy award for Best Actor for the Jane Campion Western “Power of the Dog”. The film is the most nominated film of 2022 with 12 Nominations including Best Actor for Benedict. The actor hit the red carpet after signing autographs outside the theater for the fans. A few minutes after he walked the carpet his director of “Power of the Dog” who just recovered from COVID, Jane Campion joined him. She’s nominated for three Oscars: director, adapted screenplay, and best picture. The director who is not fond of walking carpets was completely caught up in the moment and was ecstatic to see Benedict. You could really see how the two became close friends and how much love and respect they had for each other.
After the press line, Benedict was interviewed about all the roles he did from television with “Sherlock Holmes” to “Power of the Dog”. The evening was the most attended event at the festival selling out the Arlington. His award was presented to him by Jane Campion. After his speech he started to leave but came back pointing at something in the crowd. The actor was given a Ukrainian flag as a sign of support for the country amid the ongoing Russian invasion. He then posed for the press to take photos as fans rushed the front stage area.
Maltin Modern Master Award – Javier Bardem & Nicole Kidman
The only disappointing night of the festival was the Maltin Modern Master Award. Oscar nominees Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman were being honored for their portrayal of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos”. Unfortunately, Kidman had to be in a Zoom interview, due to tearing her hamstring on her current Amazon television show, she was unable to attend in person. Javier Bardem showed up for the carpet wearing casual clothes. A much more laid back look compared to the suit he wore at his wife’s tribute (Penélope Cruz). After the carpet it was time for the festival’s final tribute. Javier was extremely happy making a number of jokes. He showed how much he appreciated the in person crowd upon accepting the award, Bardem said: “I’m very honored, I don’t want to leave this stage! …seeing these images on the big screen after two years, in a theater full of people… it’s a joy for an actor.”
The closing night film was a documentary on Dionne Warwick “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over”. Director Dave Wooley attended the final night’s film. In closing I want to thank Roger Durling, Haley Powers, Sunshine Sachs, and the over 400 volunteers who made the festival’s return a huge success. For more coverage on the 2022 festival including the 2020 Winners checkout this article below by Patch Media’s Beau Behan.
This blog is dedicated to my dad who died last July. Thank you for checking out my blog. Don’t forget to support independent film and local music in your city.
All photos © Jonathan Scott Shensa Photography